The Big Bang: When Everything Explodes

Sometimes inspiration is hard to find. Sometimes it’s handed to you. This article was for an issue of Odyssey on explosions. Astronomy is full of explosions, including the biggest one of all, the Big Bang. For this article, I got to talk to my colleague Gary Felder in the Smith College physics department. His office is downstairs from mine. Gary is a cosmologist – he studies the origin and evolution of the universe.

This was my first interview. Luckily, Gary has given a lot of talks to non-scientists, including kids. I asked him what he usually tells kids about the Big Bang, and we went from there. The structure of Gary’s presentations gave the paper structure: he usually starts by debunking the three main myths about the Big Bang*. That structure made the article perfect for one of Odyssey‘s regular features, “e-scapes with O and Aarti.” (O and Aarti are two kids who appear throughout the magazine.)

The article also gave me a chance to share the scientific process with kids, through the story of the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation by Penzias and Wilson. In science, we make hypotheses and then go out and test them. If the data we gather in the field disagrees with out hypothesis, then we have to figure out why. Was our hypothesis wrong? Was there something else happening with the data? Based on the evidence, we change our hypothesis. Then lather, rinse, repeat. Illuminating that process and trying to express the beauty of uncertainty is one of the most important things that science writers do. Science is not about answers: it’s about questions.

 

*Three myths about the Big Bang:

  • The Big Bang happened at a single point
    • During the Big Bang, our entire universe exploded.
  • The Big Bang explosion expands into space
    • Space itself is expanding.
  • The Big Bang was the beginning of the universe
    • We have no idea what happened before the Big Bang. And that’s okay!